The Case for ‘Giving Every American a Pony’

Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton still isn’t “feeling the Bern” (or, still is, depending on how one interprets that phrase). In her upcoming tell-all on her presidential campaign, What Happened, Clinton details her frustrations with her old primary rival. This week, word of those complaints reached social media, forcing “Hillarybots” and “Bernie Bros” to mount yet another dreary reenactment of blue America’s most recent civil war.

In the leaked excerpts, Clinton argues that because she and Bernie Sanders “agreed so much” on policy, the Vermont senator resorted to “innuendo and impugning my character.” Specifically, Clinton suggests that Sanders tried to undermine the credibility of her progressive positions, by drawing attention to how much money she had accepted from Wall Street and corporate America. She then argues that such attacks made it “harder to unify progressives” and paved “the way for Trump’s Crooked Hillary campaign.” (She also takes exception to Sanders’s refusal to identify as a Democrat.)

There’s a kernel of truth to this argument. At various points in his campaign, Sanders suggested that his rival’s word could not be trusted because she was beholden to special interest money. But such arguments were hardly beyond the pale of primary politics. And their logic tracked with that underlying Clinton’s own critique of Citizens United: that the reason corporations invest in politicians is because they get a return.

Nonetheless, some of these attacks were gratuitous, coming after delegate math all but ensured that Clinton would be the nominee. And by undermining Clinton’s credibility, Sanders did make it more difficult to convince his supporters that her subsequent concessions to the left were sincere. By the end of his campaign, Sanders had successfully pressured Clinton into embracing free public college for working-class students and a public option for health insurance. But none of that mattered much to those Sandernistas who believed Clinton’s true intentions were hidden in secret speeches to Goldman Sachs.

Further, there’s little question that Sanders’s narrative dovetailed nicely with Trump’s — both advanced a story that painted Clinton as the representative of an unaccountable elite. In Sanders’s tale, that elite was a Democratic Establishment that had grown too comfortable with both big-dollar donors and the suffering of the working poor; in Trump’s, it was a cabal of “globalists” who were hell-bent on giving America’s jobs to China and the lives of its young women to homicidal “illegals.” By November, an aura of corruption clung to the Democratic nominee, distracting from her message, undermining her attacks on Trump’s character, and sapping enthusiasm for her candidacy. On Election Day, Clinton’s “untrustworthy” numbers rivaled those of the pathological liar she ran against.

Still, it would be difficult to argue that Sanders is primarily responsible for those facts. The socialist senator did not force Clinton to spend the lead-up to her 2016 campaign collecting a small fortune in speaking fees from widely reviled Wall Street banks. When Clinton accepted those gigs, she knew that she was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and that voters resented the influence of corporate money over their political leaders (let alone, the influence of Wall Street money). Nevertheless, she buckraked.

In truth, Republicans never needed Bernie Sanders’s help to paint Clinton as corrupt. There are GOP operatives with more than a quarter-century of experience in demonizing the Clintons — and with her private email server and family foundation, the Democratic standard-bearer gave those goons plenty to work with. Months before Sanders launched his candidacy, Steve Bannon had already placed the opening chapter of the “Crooked Hillary” saga into the pages of the New York Times.

Clinton may resent the way Sanders buttressed that narrative. But she knows that there is nothing unusual about a primary challenger aiding the other party’s cause: In 2008, she explicitly endorsed the GOP nominee’s case against Obama, saying, “Senator John McCain has a lifetime of experience that he’d bring to the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech he gave in 2002.”

The Sanders campaign landed a few body blows, but it also pulled no small number of punches. The Vermont senator declined to make what, in hindsight, may have been the strongest argument against Clinton’s candidacy — that nominating someone who is under an active FBI investigation is an unwise thing for a political party to do, no matter the merits of said investigation. Ultimately, Sanders shepherded the lion’s share of his voters into Clinton’s camp: In 2008, 25 percent of Clinton voters defected to the GOP nominee; in 2016, only 12 percent of Sanders voters did the same.

Whether it was more irresponsible for Clinton to court Wall Street speaking fees when she knew that she was probably going to be the only thing standing between the White House and a radically reactionary GOP — or for Sanders to give her such a hard time about those speaking fees, while knowing the same thing — has few implications for the Democratic Party’s future.

But Clinton’s other critique of Sanders just might. While Clinton claims that she and her primary opponent barely disagreed on policy, she also maintains that Sanders’s agenda was as asinine and unrealistic as a pitch for “four minute abs” — and likens his call for social democratic programs enacted by other Western democracies (single-payer health care, free public college) with a demand for the U.S. to guarantee all of its citizens a Universal Basic Pony:

Jake Sullivan, my top policy advisor, told me it reminded him of a scene from the 1998 movie There’s Something About Mary. A deranged hitchhiker says he’s come up with a brilliant plan. Instead of the famous ‘eight-minute abs’ exercise routine, he’s going to market ‘seven-minute abs.’ It’s the same, just quicker. Then the driver, played by Ben Stiller, says, ‘Well, why not six-minute abs?’ That’s what it was like in policy debates with Bernie. We would propose a bold infrastructure investment plan or an ambitious new apprenticeship program for young people, and then Bernie would announce basically the same thing, but bigger. On issue after issue, it was like he kept proposing four-minute abs, or even no-minute abs. Magic abs!”

Someone sent me a Facebook post that summed up the dynamic in which we were caught.

Bernie: “I think America should get a pony.”

Hillary: “How will you pay for the pony? Where will the pony come from? How will you get Congress to agree to the pony?”

Bernie: “Hillary thinks America doesn’t deserve a pony.”

Bernie Supporters: “Hillary hates ponies!”

Hillary: “Actually, I love ponies.”

Bernie Supporters: “She changed her position on ponies! #WhichHillary#WitchHillary

Headline: Hillary Refuses To Give Every American a Pony.

Debate Moderator: “Hillary, how do you feel when people say you lie about ponies?”

This argument is uncompelling (and not just because it betrays a misunderstanding of that scene in There’s Something About Mary).

It’s certainly true that Sanders’s signature proposals stood little chance of passing the Congress he would have inherited. But the same can be said for most of Clinton’s platform. The Democratic nominee promised that she would allow federal funds to be spent on abortion services; reform labor law to make it easier for workers to form unions; and “overturn Citizens United.” Opposition to that first proposal is deep and bipartisan. Support for the second is largely limited to Democrats from states where organized labor has a foothold — a fact that has long-doomed labor reform efforts in the Senate. And that last promise is genuine “magic abs” territory, given that no president can promise, in good faith, that she will be able to dictate future Supreme Court decisions.

These are hardly the only politically untenable promises Clinton made in 2016. Given how badly the House is gerrymandered in conservatives’ favor, almost nothing on her issues page met the test of near-term viability. But instead of centering her campaign on a proposal to expand tax credits for job training (or whatever else she could plausibly get Paul Ryan to sign onto), Clinton ran on an aspirational platform, using policy to tell a story about what her party wanted to do for voters — not what it actually, realistically could do, in a four-year time horizon.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Campaigning on long-term ideological goals is both legitimate and electorally sound. To champion policies that have little chance of immediate passage is not an inherently cynical exercise. In fact, it’s often a prerequisite for major reforms. In the late 19th century, when both political parties were still committed to laissez-faire, William Jennings Bryan planted the seeds of the Progressive and New Deal eras by campaigning on calls for the legalization of strikes, regulation of Wall Street, and the formation of a central bank. In 1980, Ronald Reagan campaigned on a more ambitious vision for overhauling the American welfare state than he was able to execute while in office. But by spreading the gospel of “small government,” he helped create a political universe where a Democratic president would “end welfare as we know it.”

Today, it is impossible for Democrats to offer credible solutions to our nation’s challenges while staying within the bounds of near-term political possibility. Despite the Obama administration’s redistributive reforms, the wealthiest people in the United States continue to hoard obscene shares of our national wealth and income. America’s extraordinary inequality doesn’t just mock popular intuitions about economic fairness, erode social trust, undermine social mobility, and give idiosyncratic billionaires unprecedented influence over politics — it has also left us with historically weak growth in GDP and productivity. Meanwhile, the accelerating progress of climate change poses an existential threat to all human civilization. Democratic candidates will be unable to begin popularizing the kinds of reforms that these crises demand if they restrict their 2020 platform to policies certain to withstand a Senate filibuster in 2021.

Insisting on 120-minute abs will also, probably, impede their ability to get elected. Clinton’s failure to energize critical parts of the Obama coalition can be linked to the success of the “Crooked Hillary” narrative. But it was also a product of her failure to articulate a vision of change that (less reliable) Democratic voters could believe in. According to data from Hart Research Associates, 90 percent of African-Americans believed that Barack Obama’s policies would be “good for people like me” in 2012; just 62 percent said the same about Clinton in 2016. Among millennials, those figures were 57 and 38 percent, respectively. It’s worth noting that these two demographics are disproportionately harmed by our economy’s inequalities — and that the fall-off in their support for the Democratic ticket in 2016 put Trump into the White House.

That decline in support can be attributed to many factors, but “Clinton’s platform was too politically unrealistic” isn’t one of them.

In 2020, Democrats should offer voters a clear, ambitious vision for how they would like to improve their lives. That vision will need to be restricted to what appears viable with the electorate — but not to what appears tenable with the next Congress. Literally giving every American a pony is a bridge too far. But calling for universal access to health care, affordable housing, and a job, is a different story. Reasonable people can object to such an agenda. They cannot, however, insist that it is perfectly realistic to aspire to seven-minute abs — but that six-minute abs will never, ever come to pass.

The Case for ‘Giving Every American a Pony’